Glorious Failure

Life is a long series of failures. Here's to failing gloriously!

Month: April, 2014

Noah: A Christian film review and endorsement with qualifications

Russell Crowe as Noah

Russell Crowe in Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 production of Noah.

My initial read of the recent 2014 Aronofsky production of Noah was strong endorsement. After careful analysis I endorse it cautiously.

As a conservative Christian my endorsement comes with a few caveats about characters drawn from non-biblical sources, lines that question good theological interpretation, and thematic elements not present in the Genesis account. None however, will come as a great shock to the biblically minded Christian accustomed to digesting mainstream media these days with a discriminating palate.

Christian critics lampoon the film for its departure from the Genesis account (See Erick Erickson’s review). Christian theologians charge it as gnostic subversion of the biblical text  (see Dr. Brian Mattson’s insightful review).

I conclude that it is a masterful and insightful retelling of the biblical epic. Before I address the controversy condemning the movie for Gnosticism, let me tell you why I liked the film so much.

The film makers get three big things right.

[Warning: Spoilers contained below]

Reason #1 They get they story right. The movie’s producers remained faithful to the plot from the biblical text, which goes as follows. God commands Noah to build an ark to save them from the flood. Noah builds the ark. The flood comes. Mankind is wiped out. Noah, his family, and an ark full of animals are saved!

That’s it. It’s a rather simple story. But the movie makers remained faithful to it. And that is important. While this fact does not itself make the movie great, I will share below what makes the film great, it was however a requirement for excellence. It passes.

Reason #2 The film makers get the right perspective on three key concepts: God, man, and salvation.

  • God — Forgive my cynicism here, but I am used to God being mocked in mass media. I prepared myself for a dose of that in Noah, but found myself pleasantly surprised when the credits rolled and I hadn’t heard one word against the Creator. God is portrayed in the film very reverently, by Noah at least, and that is presented as respectable, honorable even. God’s authority is not seriously questioned, rather it is affirmed. God is unapologetically;) described as the Creator, the giver of life, and the ultimate authority on all things. He is also given the ultimate credit for saving Noah and everyone on the ark, as is fitting. God should rightly be praised as the savior. This movie definitely portrays him as most directly responsible for salvation, in this case, deliverance from death by flood.
  • Man — Introductory courses to theology teach four basic facts about mankind. (1) Man was created by God, and he was (2) created good. (3) Man bears God’s image. And (4) man sinned by disobeying God and eating the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden. Those are the four facts. The movie got all of these right. That’s great. But what’s outstanding is that it is also correct on the implications of these facts. Because man sinned, he marred or veiled the image of God. Because he (we) sinned we broke the goodness of God’s creation. Nothing now is perfect. This is what we call the Fall. Nothing can be perfect, left as it is. And nothing is as it should be. What the writers of Noah got so incredibly right here is that they placed the locus of responsibility for the Fall squarely on the shoulders of mankind. There were no snarky potshots against God. There were no implications that really God is to blame. From each of our story’s protagonists and especially Noah, we see that they understand we sinned and we therefore rightly deserve death. (Romans 6.23)
  • Salvation — Scripture teaches that salvation belongs to the Lord. (Psalm 3.8 KJV) Man is the one in need of salvation. We are the weak one. God is the one who does the saving. God therefore deserves the credit and the glory for salvation. The filmmakers gets this right. Noah is portrayed as a humble man, a faithful man who obeys God, even if it costs him a great deal. His struggle to obey at great cost is explored in depth propagating some of the controversy surrounding the film which I will address below. However, Noah never indicates that he feels as though he deserves to live or to be saved from the flood. Noah is never shown boasting in his greatness, rather he gives thanks to God for salvation.

It is painfully clear, upon reflection that the writers consulted theologians when writing this story. The writers didn’t just nail the story, they tell it in a way that is faithful to the biblical definitions for God, man, and salvation.

Reason #3 The movie makers get the big picture right. Here is where I lose patience with critics who denounce this film because of the liberties taken from the text. Yes they took liberties. But they got the big picture very right. Look, the reason God includes this story in our Bible is to warn us. It serves as a warning that sin is heinous. Sin is a big deal. God takes it very seriously. We all have within us the capability for great evil.  The atrocities executed under Adolph Hitler don’t make him a moral monster, they make him human. We are each of us capable of despicable evil, and when we engage in sin, it grieves God. This story serves a sobering warning from wickedness. Noah gets this right.

Sometimes I fear Noah’s story has been cemented in the minds of American Christians as a feel-good children’s story. They picture him as the guy with a fluffy lamb under each arm and all smiles. Countless children’s wings of church building have depicted this story in murals with rainbows and smiling animals walking respectfully into the ark in an orderly manner as if nothing were wrong with the world. These murals portray nothing of the Fall or the wickedness of man which necessitated God’s sweeping global judgment. They entirely miss the point. The writers of this motion picture did not.

Noah’s story is born out of desperation. A peak into Noah’s world would have been bleak to put it euphemistically, disturbing is probably more like it. This fact was not lost on Noah’s producers.

Perhaps most importantly what this movie gets right is correctly situating this story into the larger meta-narrative of Scripture. While the Bible is made up of 66 books, penned by dozens of human writers, in multiple languages, from different nations, over the course of more than a thousand years, through the Bible, God is telling one story. The Bible tells the story of God making man, man rebelling against Him, and God coming to rescue man.

Noah the motion picture tells this same story. God created man in the beginning. He created him good, and gave him a choice to obey or disobey. Man chose disobedience and so brought death upon himself. How do we become free from this curse of sin and death upon mankind? God. God is the only hope mankind has for deliverance. As Noah’s only hope was God’s provision in the ark, so our only hope is God’s provision in Christ.

Jesus Christ alone is the way the hope the truth and the life. No one can enter the Father except by Him. While the movie does not mention Christ by name, it makes plain that the only hope of salvation is found in God. God would later reveal himself to us through Jesus Christ. But as far as Noah’s concerned that wouldn’t occur for centuries.

Noah gets so many things right I love it. The three most important things it gets right are the story, a biblically informed cosmology, and where the story fits into the big picture of the Bible.

Controversy

Are there non-biblical influences on the story? Yes. Were some of those influences Jewish mystics? Yes. Did teachings from Kabbalah influence the movie? Yes. Is the movie a gnostic subversion of the biblical text? I don’t think so.

Here’s why.

Doctor Brian Mattson makes a pretty compelling case for the gnostic themes woven throughout the movie. It’s a good read, and worth your time. Compelling points include Adam and Eve portrayed as fleshless beings of light, the snakeskin talisman used to pass on the family blessing, and the subsequent reversal that talisman suggests that the serpent is in fact divine (true wisdom) and not the Creator, who is rather Himself deceived.

After further consideration, I do not agree with Dr. Mattson’s interpretation. To his credit he posted not to educate the public as much as criticize Christian leaders who endorsed the film without even being aware of its gnostic themes he claims were obvious. I admit I did not see any connection to gnostic teaching. That is mostly due however to my casual familiarity of Gnosticism.

Doctor Mattson, criticism humbly accepted.

Nevertheless, weighing his interpretation against my reading, and the readings of others, I do not think the film is a gnostic attempt to subvert the biblical text and dupe Christians into agreeing with a gnostic story influenced by Kabbalah.

My primary reason? Darren Aronofsky, the films director and co-writer, says so himself.

Peter Chattaway sat down with the co-writers Aronofsky and Ari Handel and asked them about their creative process and what sources influenced them. In one particular segment Chattaway asks about discrepancies between the movie and the Genesis account. Here is what Aronofsky said.

“[W]e treated Genesis as the word of God, as complete truth. We were trying to bring that story to life so we didn’t want to contradict anything. We wanted to represent everything that was there and let it inspire us to tell a dramatic story with the themes and the ideas that are in there.” (patheos.com)

Deceptive? Doesn’t sound that way to me, though that’s Mattson’s charge.

During the interview both writers openly admit they consulted non-biblical sources including Jewish midrash, Kabbalah, and Enoch among many others. Their conversation revolves around it really. Were they influenced by texts other than the Bible? Absolutely. Would I have consulted those sources if I made the movie? Probably not. But more importantly are the film makers attempting to cleverly deceive faithful Christians, and Jews for that matter? No.

Peter Chattaway, who conducted the above interview and posted it for Film Chat, concluded similarly. So has Ryan Holt. And it is to them I give credit for my position. [hat tip]

[Spoiler] The last allegation of Dr. Matston’s I’ll consider is that Noah’s erratic behavior on the ark is best explained as a gnostic seeking to become more like the Creator by murdering his newborn granddaughters. Again I refer to the words of the writers themselves from the same interview mentioned above.

Says Aronofsky, “the story of the film is a test to bring Noah to the same conclusion that God wants him to get to.” (interview source) While not referring explicitly to Noah’s actions on the ark, it’s obvious Noah’s crisis of character experienced on the ark constitutes part of this test. Regarding the testing of Noah and how that reflects/changes his character, Aronofsky later in the same interview says,

“[H]e is tested, and goes through the most difficult test possible, and he comes out the other end with the way God wanted him to sort of succeed, and I think that, you know, within that mythology, that’s the way we decided to perceive it, that there’s this long line of people being tested with their faith, and either they succeed or they don’t. And Noah definitely succeeds.” (interview with Chattaway)

Conclusion

I endorse Aronofsky’s Noah and recommend Christians go see it to re-imagine this biblical epic. I qualify that endorsement by reminding you believers in Christ, this picture does not hold the authority of God’s Word. Therefore, do not allow this film to mold your perception of what actually happened where the Text has already clearly spoken. [Spoiler alert] Easy application: there were no rock monsters who protected Noah.

I caution believers to keep in mind there are extra-biblical sources which significantly influenced this rendition of the story, sources which I do not think are necessarily true. However, I still recommend the film’s viewing because these sources don’t necessitate the falsity of their teachings. That is to say, while I do not think the way this story is portrayed on screen is likely how it actually happened, based on what I read in the authoritative text–the Bible–it is at least still possibly true. And that was all Aronofsky was aiming to achieve. He wanted to retell this epic story from Scripture with imagination.

Go see it. Enjoy it. Keep thinking.

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3 ways to make sense of illogical conversations

A friend of mine asked me for advice the other day. His name is Jack. Now Jack has been talking with his friend John about a Christian response to the problem of evil. It would be more accurate to say Jack asked me to recommend some good reading to pass along to John. Jack didn’t ask me for my advice. But before I made any recommendations, I wanted to know more about John, their relationship, and how Jack has lead the conversation so far. So I asked a few questions.

Both Jack and John are believers in Christ, so they approach the issue from a standpoint of faith. John struggles to reconcile two facts he knows for certain, yet seem to contradict one another. The first is that God exists. He is good. And He is all-powerful; The second is that gratuitous evil and suffering exist.

I’m not surprised Jack asked me for help on this issue. It’s a very sticky one. Consider, for example, that it has been around virtually since man has been writing and thinking. It’s a very difficult issue – not impassable – but very difficult. To be specific, the difficulty is in accepting both statements as true without contradicting one another. Acceptance is far more difficult than understanding intellectually how they can be reconciled. Isn’t that how most things are in life?

Here’s what surprises me. The more questions I asked Jack to properly understand what’s really going on with John and to best diagnose his issue, the more Jack became frustrated. Jack was frustrated by my not answering his question. He wanted to know what books and/or articles to read so as to help John. The implication I picked up from Jack’s subtext was, “Tell me what John needs to read so he gets it–so I can fix him.”

I applaud Jack’s heart to love John with truth and to call him to a deeper understanding of God’s truth, and ultimately to a deeper faith. But I paused when I realized Jack thought John’s problem was an issue of understanding — that John just doesn’t get it.

Even though Jack is my friend, I look up to him like a mentor so I didn’t have the heart to share with him what I’m about to write which is what went through my mind next.

When people are being illogical there’s usually an explanation. John doesn’t recognize that there are intellectual (Christian) resolutions to the problem of evil. In this context Jack knows John is being illogical, but couldn’t figure out why. I propose three ways to straighten out these curves in the conversational path.

1) It’s personal. John may have history encountering people he perceived as righteous, let’s even say they were faithful Christians, yet were unduly struck by calamity. Maybe he watched that happen to his parents or a close friend. Personal experience often dictates our most closely held personal beliefs whether they are intellectual or not.

2) It’s emotional. Maybe John sees himself as righteous and resents God for the calamity that has befallen him. Perhaps he is deeply hurt and he feels God is responsible. In this case his resentment prevents him from acknowledging God can be both good and powerful, yet evil can still exist.

3) It’s a sin issue. John may be in willful sin and the direct consequences are hurting someone else, not him. He can see the death that sin leads to, but because it isn’t his death, he has no motivation to stop. Yet, to admit that God is good and just, and that evil may abound now, but one day God will justify the righteous and penalize the wicked, would require him to submit to the authority of God and lay down his sin. That’s something he just isn’t prepared to do yet. In this case John’s sin is blinding him to the truth that evil is not a problem for God.

My next step is to have a conversation with Jack that people are more than just brains. Just because what they say is illogical, doesn’t mean they don’t understand what you’re saying. God made us in His image, and He is both glorious and complicated. Sometimes misunderstanding another human being requires us to dig a little deeper to make sense of what happened. Most of the time, I find it requires me to dig a little deeper to understand myself.

Glorious Failure

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